Sale of unhealthy food near schools under fire as childhood obesity rises

Sale of unhealthy food near schools under fire as childhood obesity rises
The number of fast food restaurants and sweet shops near schools is increasing. Credit: Belga/ Nicolas Maeterlinck

In Belgium, almost one in four children is overweight, and almost one in ten is obese. While more than just diet alone impacts these figures, limiting the number of establishments selling unhealthy food and drink could play a role in curbing this issue.

A clear link between unhealthy food environments around schools and children's weight status was highlighted in a study published in January of this year by Public Health Institute Sciensano. It also showed that the number of fast food restaurants and sweet shops in the vicinity of Flemish schools has increased since 2008.

This is having a negative influence on the weight status of children up to the age of 12. Aside from being based on individual choices, what we eat is also strongly influenced by people's living environment. The greater the supply of unhealthy food within walking distance, the higher the BMI of pupils, the study found.

Legal framework needed

This is why the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (VVSG), at the start of the academic year, is calling on the Flemish and the federal government to give local authorities to have more power to limit the sale of unhealthy food near schools. These calls have been mirrored by Sciensano.

Local authorities currently have little power to ban unhealthy catering establishments or shops selling these products, because "then it would have to refuse all catering, and that is also difficult in a school environment," Nathalie Debast of the VVSG told Het Nieuwsblad.

Because of European legislation, which determines the freedom of trade, municipalities cannot make a distinction between healthy and unhealthy food when giving a licence to catering establishments. "We ask for a legal framework so that we can enforce that there will be no fast food in certain neighbourhoods."

The VVSG said it is a matter of public health to address the issue. "There is enough scientific research to show that it harms health. The right to healthy food is even a human right. It is high time someone took this to task and legal solutions were found in the interest of public health."

No concrete plans for changes

Despite the apparent urgency, little is being done to address the situation from above. "It is premature to conclude at this point that restaurants should be banned," said Flemish Minister of Welfare Hilde Crevits.

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"We will set up concrete actions on the basis of the final Sciensano study, which will be completed by the end of 2023."

Meanwhile, Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said he is working on a nutrition plan, but this too is not yet concrete. "We will analyse the impact of possible scenarios together with other governments," he said.

Other countries, including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, are already looking into taking measures to combat the issue in their countries, while South Korea has prohibited the sale of unhealthy food within a radius of 200 metres around schools. 

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